As a cooking school teacher I always seem to have more food in my pantry, sometime more than even I know what to with. But there are several ingredients that are great to have on hand at all times to make an ordinary meal into an extraordinary meal. Having these simple items on hand will also make “throwing together” a meal much easier.

My list does not included things like “meat” and “potatoes”, everyone is at a different skill level. Your simple grilled New York strip steak with roasted potatoes is someone else’s baked chicken breast with minute rice. Everyone’s skill level is different but these items can help to add pizazz to anyone’s meal.

For instance, you have chosen to make diner. Where it is chicken, fish, or even steak for dinner tonight you can make it into a full meal.

Let’s start with a simple salad. Start by making a dressing. Combine vinegar, mustard, and honey. Slowly whisk in oil. Depending on your choices you can have any number of different dressings (from a simple vegetable oil and red wine vinegar to an expensive olive oil and aged balsamic). This can be used to top a simple bag of mixed greens or some sliced tomatoes and cucumbers.

For your main course, no matter with if you have chosen to use a meat or tofu. Or if you have chosen to bake broil or grill. Take a can of diced, strain of excess liquid and heat with herbs and spiced (coriander and oregano for a Mexican flavor, Italian seasoning for an Italian flavor, etc.) to make a chunky sauce to top your meat. Or cut up chunks of meat, sausage, shrimp, or tofu and combine with a can of diced tomatoes, tomato paste, and Creole seasoning for a quick Creole stew. Serve with some red beans and rice.

For me a meal is not complete without some kind of dessert. Try poached fruit (pears, apple, peaches, plums, etc.). In a sauté pan combine wine (anything that is not aged in oak..Merlot, Riesling, etc.), cinnamon sticks, cloves, orange zest and some kind of sweetener. Bring to a boil and reduce heat, add fruit and cover and simmer till fruit is fork tender. Remove fruit from wine and reduce poaching liquid to create a sauce. And to add a little extra chop some up some dried fruit and some nuts to create a topping.

I promise you with having the right items on hand will allow you to make a simple meals on a moments notice!


Sugar, Honey or Agave Nectar- Not just for dessert, add to salad dressing, use as a glaze for pork, pour over goat cheese with some lemon zest for a cheese platter.

Spices (cumin, coriander, nutmeg, curry, and more)- A well-stocked spice cupboards can be your best friend. Spice up your stews or poached pears with cinnamon and cloves.

Wine- Reduce wine to make a quick sauce, poaching liquid, marinade, you name it you can do it with wine

Salt &Fresh Ground Pepper- A good salt (kosher, sea salt, pinks salt ect.) will add tons of flavor to your food. Unlike iodized salt it has a flavor and over time you do not have to use as much. Fresh ground pepper can add great intensity to you food. Already ground pepper starts to loose it’s flavor the instant it is ground and continues to loose it’s flavor as it sit on your shelf.

Canned Foods

Stock or broth (Beef, chicken, fish or vegetable)-Use it to make a soup, sauce or just add to rice to boost flavor.

Canned tomatoes-These can save the day, add strained and mix with fresh herbs for a topping to meats or fish, quick stew, even an emergency salsa.

Tomato paste- Make a quick pasta sauce or use to make marinades. It can also be used to make thicken salad dressings, soups or sauces.

Beans-Canned beans are a quick and easy side dish, salad or dip.


Soy sauce- Soup need a little something or can’t think what to marinate that chicken breast in, try soy sauce and honey.

Vinegar (Balsamic, White Wine, and Rice)- Incredible flavor enhancing powers. Make quick salad dressings, mixing together the vinegar or your choice with a small amount of honey and mustard, then slowly whisk in oil.

Mustard (From Dijon to ordinary yellow)- Use to thicken salad dressing, enhance the flavor of marinades, or combine with sour cream and lemon and use as a topping for broiled fish

Hot sauce- If something seems just not quite right with a sauce or the flavors just aren’t there, try some hot sauce.

Olive oil- Not just for salads, a good olive oil or even flavored oil can be great addition to cheese or drizzled over grilled shrimp or steak as a sauce that add richness.

Worcestershire sauce-This is the secret to many great meals. A dash here and a dash there and you will never have known your food could taste so good.


Lemons- Adds flavor to sauces, soup, dressings, etc. without adding excess calories. Don’t forget the zest, adds life to things like yogurt, fresh fruit, pasta and much more.

Garlic-Fresh garlic adds life to those dull meals. While roasted garlic can thicken a salad dressing.

Nuts- All nuts are good nuts! Toasted, chopped, purred or raw I am nuts for nuts. From pesto to goat cheese rolled in toasted chopped pecans there are so many options.

Capers- The little berry that could, for everything from tuna salad to pasta sauces. You never knew what you were missing.

Dried fruit (currants, cranberries, cherries, ect.)-Great for desserts, to a quick snack, as well as stuffing meats or added to a BBQ sauce.